Monday, June 06, 2011

What Kind of Artist Are You?

I've been thinking lately about the different ways that people seem to make and build careers as artists and of the things I wish I'd had explained to me a bit more clearly when I was at art school first time around. Now, this is very broad-brush stuff and I'm quite sure that there will be so many exceptions to these that it'll all fall apart if you want it to, but I'm finding that this is quite a useful way to be thinking about approaching a career in art if you're just starting out.

It strikes me that there are three general ways of being an artist as a job, to the point where I wonder if we could do with slightly different words for each to differentiate between them, because most people when they know that they are artists start out not quite knowing what type of artist they want to be and get tied up in knots trying to work out why or how they will express their vocation as an artist.

I use that term very deliberately, because in my view, artists (be they writers, performers, painters, poets, educators or however it manifests) occupy a very similar social niche to the one that has in the past been occupied by priests, shamen and the like. I'll explain a little more at the end.

As I say, I think there are three main ways of approaching a career in the arts, and although there's some room to move from one to another, it strikes me that you can only really do that with any success once you've achieved some mileage along one path first. Let me have a go at blurting out what those three paths seem to be before I go way off track though.

Option 1: Objects of Desire

This would be the artist we most commonly think of when we imagine an artist, so someone who sells a painting or a sculpture for a large amount of money that's more than the material worth of the object itself, so what people are paying for is the idea of the object as much as the object itself, and the status of owning it. The painting, the sculpture, the installation is rare or unique and the artist makes few works, which enhances their value and they're kept by their buyers for the possibility that they'll increase in value in future as often as being bought out of love for the object or the idea behind it. The artist is not the focus of their public's attention, but the work is and both the artist and their work has a mystery to it that enhances that sense of it being more than its physical reality.

I know that I sound like I'm being a bit cynical about this kind of work; I'm not - I think there's something truly magical about this kind of art when it works, and the reverence and awe with which it is treated is well-deserved and it's largely because of those moments when this kind of art really excels that I'd say I think of art galleries as being the closest experience I have to what others would find in a church or other place of worship. That sense of a power and a beauty that's beyond you and moves through you.

Option 2: Project and not Object

The artists who work like this are the kind we hear the least about, because if artists are moved by a vocation of mystery and faith, then they are the nuns who study their scripture and then work selflessly in the community as an act of faith. This kind of work is the type where the artwork is not the physical object or the performance that's produced, but the manner in which it happens or the interactions that create it. It's the work of theatre in education projects, it's the work of the participation producer projects at the South Bank Centre that make large-scale art by involving hundreds of people who otherwise would not engage with art. It's the work undertaken by artists who use their talents to share their passion to educate others and to share their faith in the power of art and stories on a human level.

Yes, it's a little hard to reconcile this with the traditional model of how we see the work of an artist, but when you think about how many artists live, doing artist in residence projects where they directly share their passion and knowledge and don't live for the celebrity status or the sale of the object they create, but for the process of sharing the journey along the way, you realise that many fine artists, performers and writers work in this manner and that it's a brilliant way to be an artist.

Option 3: Accessible and Multiple

This kind of artist is someone who makes art which sells for less money but to many people. Print-makers who do large editions, craftspeople who set up shops on etsy or wherever and, yes, comic book creators would all fit into this category. Where the Option 1 artist makes few works that sell for larger sums of money, these artists make more and sell to more people. While it sounds like this is a more straightforward route to get into, it's surprising how many art schools seem to discourage it, perhaps because they're themselves wanting to get the status of scoring the big name artists who'll get gallery careers.  Where Option 1 artists have a high status of mystery and allure to them and Option 2 artists are often invisible behind the effect their work has, these artists build an audience to whom they must remain directly responsive and accountable, and there's a lot to be said for making friends if you're this kind of artist.


Now, I said I wouldn't witter on too much, but I think one of the difficulties I think I've had and that a few people I know face, too, is that if you're trying to move down two or all three paths at once, you're going to be spread too thinly and you're going to impede your chances of getting anywhere with any of them.

If you're selling cheap prints of your work on a shop online, a top-end gallery might be less inclined to take you on as their next big project, because the exclusivity of your work is compromised. Similarly, if you're trying to maintain the intellectual mystery of an Option 1 artist, then project work won't come your way. Similarly, if you're building up project work in residencies, the friendly relationship you'd need with audiences for doing option 3 can suffer if you're not careful.

That's not to say you can't do more than one - if Grayson Perry can do projects with families in the Foundling Museum, then obviously you can do Option 2 work when you're an Option 1 artist, but you need to be set up in one field before you move into another.

I don't know how useful any of this stuff might be, but it's a bit of a brain dump for me about some things I've been mulling over for a while about getting a sense of who and what you are as an artist.

What kind of artist are you?


Quick last-minute reminder: I've got issue 2 of The Lengths available to pre-order ready for its release on the 6th of July. Head over here to order your copy: Oh, I guess that makes me option 3. Rah!

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